Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate Lloyd
Joel Edgerton as Braxton Carter
Ulrich Thomsen as Dr. Sander Halvorson
Eric Christian Olsen as Adam Goodman
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Jameson
Paul Braunstein as Griggs
How long is The Thing? 103 minutes.
What is The Thing rated? R for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and language.
Dear Hollywood: if it’s not broken, quit trying to fix it.
There’s a whole cadre of snowbound horror films that includes The Shining and 30 Days of Night. These flicks utilize their settings to compound their extraordinary aspects, pitting vampires and ghosts against the intrinsic crazy that emerges when humans are trapped together – anyone who’s ever been confined in a snowstorm knows the truth of cabin fever. One of the most impressive of sub-zero-set movies is John Carpenter’s 1982 sci-fi/horror shocker The Thing. Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks enterprise The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s The Thing is alternately reviled (famously by Roger Ebert) and beloved. It’s a visceral, frigid exercise in paranoia and claustrophobia, compounded by its Antarctic setting. This weekend we’re seeing yet another The Thing. But if it’s not broken, why fix it, you ask? Well, this weekend’s release, also titled The Thing (are we confused yet by all these ambiguous things?), is a prequel.
In Carpenter’s The Thing, a team of scientists on an American base in Antarctica find themselves stranded by a hellacious storm, trapped with an extraterrestrial life form that devours and becomes a replica of its victims…but perhaps more importantly, they are trapped with their own paranoia. In Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s new movie, a team of Norwegian scientists (the very same from the opening of the original) are the first to find the creature that haunts the dreams of many a horror fan. When the Norwegians literally stumble upon some kind of a structure buried for 100,000 years beneath the ice, they bring in apparently renowned Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and American paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The investigation begins mundanely enough, but when the team realizes the creature they’ve unearthed is still alive, things go straight to frozen-over hell. This version delves deeply into the origins of the Thing – which is problematic.
Detractors of Rob Zombie’s Halloween know that the cardinal rule of a classic monster is this: don’t reveal too much. In the same way Michael Myers was a far spookier fiend when he hid behind the impassive mask, tilting his head in fascination at his kills, the alien in The Thing was wholly horrifying when it was an unknown life form. When Zombie strove to tell us the story of how Michael Myers became a monster, we quit listening. Unfortunately, van Heijningen falls into the same trap with his prequel. Those of us who love the original don’t want to see the creature in its original form. We don’t want a closer glimpse at its vehicle than we got in the opening shot of the first movie. Here, we get those things.
Carpenter’s movie featured a large cast of men, including Kurt Russell in the role of MacReady, the levelheaded helicopter pilot. These men are confined to the bowels of a base nestled within the harshest climates in the world. A whistling wind pervades the entire film, and subconsciously we feel the chill. It’s forty below zero and there’s no civilization within hundreds of miles. Under those circumstances people get a little nutty. The addition of women to the new cast (Winstead as Kate and Kim Bubbs as French scientist Juliette) adds another complicating layer. It’s clear from the beginning that we should regard Kate as a sex object despite her apparent disinterest in men. Halvorson treats her like an insect, while a few other men leer or cringe. Kate of course takes on the role of Final Girl while also slipping quietly into the role that Russell built for her. It’s a superficially interesting gender switch, but not particularly effective since no character in the film really stands out.
The genius of the original was in the fact that these snowbound men were, mostly, friends. When the alien could have been any one of them, it was duly terrible because they had to stare into the eyes of people they’d known for months or years and decide whether these friends were still human. The Norwegians and Americans in the prequel are at best suspicious of each other, and at worst downright xenophobic. The unfamiliarity, cultural differences, and language barrier in the prequel take away the horrid, creeping dread of the first film.
Although he only received a “Special Thanks To” credit, Stan Winston was largely responsible for the mind-blowing, stomach-churning effects in the original; the creatures, including a severed head on arachnid legs and a tentacled husky-alien, were arguably the most visually memorable part of the film. In the new movie, the effects are (of course) largely digital. Image Engine, the company responsible, does a totally passable job. Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (doesn’t that sound sort of ominous?) is accountable for the physical effects, and they too managed to create a version of the creature that pays homage to the first while taking it to the next level. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Black Xmas) enormous brown eyes are perfect for horror – but it sure would’ve been nice if Kate Lloyd had a real personality. Finally, composer Marco Beltrami is no Ennio Morricone.
The new film features the same credit font and the same heartbeat guitar rhythm as the original, and a scene during the credits takes us up to the very minute the older film picks up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table and instead feeds us a lot of schlock we didn’t really need. There have been some truly brilliant horror remakes in the last decade (though they’re admittedly rare). This just isn’t one of them. If you’re in it for the gore – and many of us are this time of year – then by all means, this movie is a fun, disgusting, jumpy B-movie. True fans will be in theater seats this weekend, but you might do yourself a favor and give the original another chance.